It has been over a year since the world was introduced to lockdown measures as a consequence of the coronavirus pandemic. These restrictions have highlighted just how much we collectively owe to the key workers who have kept essential services running, despite the personal risks and additional challenges they face, highlights Mrs. Monica Lambrou-Whiting, Senior Claims Manager, West P&I.
eafarers fulfil this role for society, keeping vital logistics arteries open when they have been needed the most; 80-90% of global trade, including essentials such as food, medicine, and raw materials, is transported by sea. Yet, they have been largely overlooked in this respect and many countries have yet to provide seafarers with key worker status.
This status is far more important than just the accolade. In most countries, key workers are afforded exemptions from local or international restrictions to allow them to properly fulfil their duties. In some they are afforded additional protections and support. The reluctance of some nations to provide seafarers with this crucial status is both baffling and worrying – but the problems go far deeper.
Stuck at sea
Travel restrictions have created barriers for civilian movement across much of the world. Some borders have been completely closed, while complex passport, quarantine and visa arrangements have been introduced for those crossing others. These restrictions can make it difficult to enter a country.
Where maritime personnel are not subject to key worker status, they are bound by the same restrictions as any civilian. This can make shore leave next to impossible or mean that crews are prevented from leaving vessels. The disruption that these restrictions have caused to commercial air travel mean that even if a crew is able to leave a vessel those that travel by air may be left stranded.
The scale of the problem is colossal; one reliable estimate suggested that around 400,000 seafarers were still stranded on board commercial vessels at the end of September 2020, with contracts that had been repeatedly extended beyond the original expiry of their commitments. The wait for relief crew has felt never ending for those stuck at sea, with no end date.
In the early days of the pandemic, we were seeing cases where coronavirus restrictions left some seafarers unable to leave their vessel for emergency treatment. This has been the dominant insurance issue to date; at West, two out of every three coronavirus claims that we have received have related to crew issues. This has improved, however restrictions on crew changes persist and seafarers have faced months of isolation.
Seafarers who come from countries with less successful vaccination programmes may also have difficulties getting contracts in the medium term, as many countries will soon require crew to be vaccinated. Even where vaccines will not be mandatory for crews, the advent of vaccine passports and other measures will create additional hurdles for unvaccinated seafarers.
The International Chamber of Shipping (ICS), with support from the International Group of P&I Clubs, has introduced new guidance on best practice on crew vaccinations which also spells out the legal liability and insurance implications. From an insurance perspective, West and the other IG P&I Clubs will cover, in accordance with the crew contract, any illness associated with a crewmember’s reaction to a vaccine in the same way as they cover other illnesses as long as the crew are under contract.
Intervention is still required
Some studies attribute 96% of shipping incidents to human error. The isolation, anxiety, and lack of proper medical care that seafarers have been burdened with during the pandemic could not only create a new full-scale humanitarian crisis, but be detrimental to safety.
This message was reinforced on the IMO’s 10th anniversary Day of the Seafarer on the 25 June 2020. Last year’s campaign focused on the need for maritime personnel to be acknowledged as key workers on the front line of the coronavirus pandemic, and urged governments to institute safe crew changeover and repatriation protocols. Actions are thankfully now being taken, but substantially more still needs to be done.
The coordinated guidance and support provided by the IMO’s Seafarer Crisis Action Team alongside bodies such as the ICS, the International Labour Organisation and the International Group of P&I Clubs has played a crucial role in delivering the progress so far. National governments that have not yet done so must leverage this resource as they put in place practical solutions that recognise the crucial role and plight of seafarers.
Supply chains have withstood the pressure
Global logistics chains have faced enormous challenges since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, while those that work in logistics have continued to work despite the challenges. The shipping industry has been especially badly hit, due to the sheer number of vessels that cross international borders on a daily basis.
Yet goods, medicines, and vaccines have continued to move between countries. This is a testament to the work and sacrifices of the men and women who have continued to work at sea, in so many cases despite the expiry of their contracts. It is these seafarers who have allowed ports to remain open and vital supply chains to be maintained.
There has clearly already been significant disruption, though, with the potential for more. Factory closures, manufacturing backlogs, and issues elsewhere in the supply chain can cause delays. Similarly, quarantine demands, or crew illness cause immediate delays.
At West, we have seen claims generated by the expenses that shipowners have incurred because of quarantine restrictions and repatriation. We have also dealt with claims stemming from fines for perceived Maritime Labour Convention breaches, compensation for crew illness and damage to personal effects. Vaccine roll outs are a welcome development, but there is still concern about the risks of further variants, lockdowns, and restrictions as the risks associated with the pandemic continue to shift.
How shipping must change
The global pandemic has highlighted just how important seafarers are, and just how difficult a job they have. Seafarers have overcome incredible challenges over the past thirteen months to keep shipping and supply chains in operation.
The level of sacrifice that this has demanded of seafarers has had welfare implications. Prolonged periods of isolation and uncertainty, especially for those who have seen their contracts extended multiple times while at sea, are particularly damaging for mental health. West and other International Group P&I Clubs have seen a marked increase in mental health cases since the pandemic began compared to previous years, with cases roughly doubling. More needs to be done to protect the mental health and wellbeing of seafarers after the pandemic has ended.
Over recent years, the maritime industry has started to better understand mental health. Longstanding programmes like the Sailors’ Society’s Wellness at Sea initiative were changing perceptions on mental health before coronavirus; research from the Sailors’ Society suggests that the initiative reduced the number of seafarers who reported feeling anxious or worried at work by almost ten percentage points compared to those who had not attended any wellness training, and reduced the number of crew that reported feeling sad at work by almost fourteen percentage points.
West is proud to support the Sailors’ Society’s Wellness at Sea programme, and it has been encouraging to see more seafarers and shipowners appreciate the value of wellness programmes. However, this focus must extend further.
In the event of a traumatic incident onboard a vessel, more care must be taken to ensure that the welfare of seafarers is being taken into account. New products like QwestCare show that there are innovative ways in which crew members can be interviewed in post-casualty that ensure that relevant information is gathered sympathetically, with an eye on post-traumatic stress or mental health issues.
We have been collectively living with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic for over a year now. It seems unfathomable that some key workers are still yet to receive the recognition that they deserve. They have delivered the vital supplies that we have all needed to get through lockdowns, and been the backbone of the global economy. Coronavirus has also highlighted that seafarer welfare must be a key issue for decision makers and shipowners today, and after the pandemic has ended.
The views presented hereabove are only those of the author and do not necessarily those of SAFETY4SEA and are for information sharing and discussion purposes only.